Ancient DNA reveals role of Near East and Egypt in cat domestication

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In a new comprehensive study of the spread of domesticated cats, DNA analysis suggests that cats lived for thousands of years alongside humans before they were domesticated.

A new study suggests that ancient Egyptians were responsible for domesticating cats as we know them today.

Van Neer gathered hundreds of cat specimens, including bones, teeth, and mummies from areas in Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, dating from 7000 B.C.E to the 19 century C.E. He then assembled a team with more than two dozen researchers who drilled into the remains to search for mitochondrial DNA, genetic material inherited from the mother. A group of researchers performed a genetic analysis of more than 200 ancient cats and found that even if the felines were domesticated outside Egypt, it was there where cats turned into domesticated animals.

One thing that remains to be uncovered is if the Egyptians' domesticated cats on their own or used the animals that other people began to domesticate in the neighboring region of the Near East.

The researchers said the most pronounced genetic changes that distinguish wild from domestic cats were "apparently linked to behaviour" - something that anyone who has met a Scottish wildcat would readily confirm.

Summing up their findings, the global team of scientists, led by Belgian paleogeneticist Claudio Ottoni, wrote that "both the Near Eastern and Egyptian populations of Felis silvestris lybica contributed to the gene pool of the domestic cat at different historical times". For this reason, archaeological evidence alone isn't sufficient to determine when and where cats were first domesticated.

The first lines of cats, called IV-A, were originally from southwest Asia, but brought to Europe in about 4400 BC. Egyptian cats may have been particularly friendly, resembling the type of purring pet known today, the researchers speculate. It also appeared more than 5,000 years ago in Romania, as well as around 3,000 years ago in Greece.

"And then the cat spread very efficiently all over the ancient world as a ship's cat".

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Determining the origin of the modern house cat is hard due to the fact that cats have been one of mankind's constant companions.

"They started to spread in the ancient world throughout the Neolithic period". "The Egyptians were the first people to have the resources to do everything bigger and better", says Carlos Driscoll, the World Wildlife Fund chair in conservation genetics at the Wildlife Institute of India in Dehradun, who led the 2007 study. Humans have been intermittently guiding cat breeding for less than 1,000 years.

A separate lineage accounts for the felines shown in Egyptian tomb paintings and that were mummified and buried alongside their presumably adoring human companions. "They turbocharged the tameness process".

"They are direct witnesses of the situation in the past", said Eva-Maria Geigl of the Jacques Monod Institute in Paris.

An ancient exodus of cats from both Turkey and Egypt may have given us the modern cat. The Egyptians worshipped a half-woman, half-cat goddess named Bastet. Today's cats are likely a blend of both Turkish and Egyptian cats.

Ikram says a dual domestication makes sense, as other animals-including dogs and pigs-may also have been domesticated a few times. "And this paper gives clues to how that happened". In the DNA samples analyzed, one genetic signature found first in the Asian portion of Turkey — and perhaps once carried by some Fertile Crescent cats — showed up more than 6,000 years ago in Bulgaria.

Domesticated cats continued to conquer Europe, spreading into the Viking trading port of Ralswiek in present-day Germany on the Baltic Sea by 7th century A.D.

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